Roberts Bank Container Terminal Threatens Orcas

LESS THAN A MILE NORTH OF THE BORDER, the Port of Vancouver is planning an enormous new container-ship terminal on the Salish Sea that Canada’s Federal Review Panel has admitted will dramatically impact threatened Chinook salmon and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, or orcas, that feed on them. If this project goes forward, hundreds more massive container ships — among the largest such vessels in the world — would ply these waters annually, substantially raising the chances of accidents and fuel-oil spills, as well as adding to the risks of ship strikes and increasing underwater noise levels in these orcas’ critical habitat.

As currently planned, Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2) would be built in the sub-tidal waters of the Fraser River delta adjacent to the Westshore coal terminal, on 437 acres of critical habitat for salmon and migratory birds. Once in existence, it would significantly increase the Port’s capacity for larger container ships and also induce more container-ship traffic through the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea — by up to 520 transits per year. 

The massive “Mega-Max” container ships that could call on this terminal typically carry 18 to 24 thousand containers. They can also carry much larger amounts of propulsion fuels, in some cases over 4 million gallons worth, which could dramatically increase the extent of an oil spill from a container-ship collision or grounding.

 Such an event anywhere in the Salish Sea would be incredibly damaging. A major oil spill resulting from an accident at Turn Point in Haro Strait (between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island), for example, could become a disaster affecting the marine ecology of the entire San Juan archipelago and Canadian Gulf Islands.

“Canadian projects such as Roberts Bank Terminal 2 can directly impact the waters and wildlife here in Washington.”

— Brent Lyles, Executive Director, Friends of the San Juans

“The Salish Sea is a huge, trans-boundary marine system, so Canadian projects such as Roberts Bank Terminal 2 can directly impact the waters and wildlife here in Washington state,” said Brent Lyles, Executive Director of the non-profit organization Friends of the San Juans. “Given how little U.S. citizens know about the potentially devastating impacts of this project, we felt it a profound urgency to share the best available science about it and to educate people about its risks.”

THE ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW OF THIS PROJECT by the Canadian panel did not adequately address the terminal’s adverse impacts on Washington state’s environmental, economic and cultural resources — or on its public and private properties. Nor did it address the deeply felt concerns of First Nations and Native American tribes on both sides of the border who hold treaty rights to fish these waters. “The Fraser River is a major source of salmon for us all,” says Lummi Nation tribal elder Raynell Morris. “I’m worried about anything that endangers the river as a home for salmon.”

 The Canadian panel admitted that the terminal would inevitably have numerous environmental impacts, including “significant adverse impacts on Chinook salmon” as well as “significant adverse and cumulative effects on SRKW (Southern Resident Killer Whales).” Yet the specific impacts on the endangered orca population — now down to only 74 remaining members — were largely ignored in its report. 

Washington state has made major commitments to and investments in the protection and recovery of these killer whales, their critical Salish Sea habitat, and their food web, which hinges on the availability of Chinook salmon. The new terminal will threaten the progress made to date on recommendations of the Governor’s Orca Task Force (which one of us served on and the other advised) and on the state legislation that has ensued from its deliberations. Even putting aside the added risks of oil spills and ship strikes, there would inevitably be a major increase in underwater noise levels from these massive container ships that will further limit the orcas’ ability to echolocate, communicate and hunt for scarce salmon.

Over 40 organizations and nearly 100,000* individuals have asked Governor Inslee to oppose the RBT2 project, signing a petition addressed to him. And if the project is destined for approval in spite of Washington state’s strong objections, he should insist that robust risk-mitigation measures be required to protect the orcas, salmon and Washington state environment.

LEADERS OF THE LUMMI NATION and other Native Nations in Washington State and British Columbia made clear in the 2019 hearings that they did not consent to the project in view of the unacceptable and unavoidable threats it poses to indigenous lifeways in the Salish Sea, to salmon, and to our SkaliChelh (killer-whale) relatives.  We say now what we said then, on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves:  kwel’ hoy (“Here we draw the line.”).

As the Lummi speaker stated, for the Lummi Nation the concerns go to the heart of deeply felt cultural values. “We are salmon people, as are our relations, the killer whales,” said Morris. “Our connection to them is personal, relational, and goes back countless generations. The Lummi name for them, que’lhol mechen means ‘our relations below the waves.’”

“We need a new vision that honors the ancient wisdom of the Salish Sea and all our relations,” said Lawrence Solomon, Chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “The killer whale, our traditional lands and waters, and our schelangen — our way of life — are all imperiled as never before.”

“We need a new vision that honors the ancient wisdom of the Salish Sea and all our relations.”

— Lawrence Solomon, Chair, Lummi Indian Business Council

As part of this new vision, the Lummi Nation has been calling for a moratorium on any additional potential Salish Sea stressors — including marine  vessel traffic and associated development. An inter-jurisdictional, comprehensive, cumulative-impact study of Salish Sea marine-vessel traffic and related impacts is long overdue, as is an agreed-upon baseline for its sustainable cultural and ecological vitality.

“We have witnessed over the past seven generations the nearly total despoliation of our sacred Xw’ullemy (Salish Sea),” said Jewell James, Lummi tribal oral historian and elder. “We must draw the line here and now with the new injury and insult of Roberts Bank Terminal 2.  We all have the moral responsibility and the Xa xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation) to honor Xw’ullemy and through her, to honor each other.”

Illustration: Artist’s rendering of Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (at left) along with the original container terminal (at right) and the Westshore Terminals coal terminal (Credit: Port of Vancouver).

*figure updated on January 29, 2020.

A good video of Jay Julius is his TED-x Orcas Island lecture, “Sacred America.”

Author Profile

Jeremiah “Jay” Julius is a fisherman, Lummi Nation Tribal member, and advocate for the Salish Sea. Formerly the Chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, he is the principal of Julius Consulting, and founder and president of the indigenous-led non-profit organization Se’Si’Le.

Author Profile

Lovel Pratt serves as Marine Protection and Policy Director at Friends of the San Juans. A member of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, she is also the environmental representative on the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee.

2 thoughts on “Roberts Bank Container Terminal Threatens Orcas”

  1. The recently freed “stuck ship” in the Suez Canal, mega-max container ship Ever Given, is the same size as the container ships that will begin transiting Haro Strait and Boundary Pass if the proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project gets approved and built. It is purportedly carrying something like 20,000 containers, roughly the midpoint of the 18,000 to 24,000 containers that this vessel class can carry.

    Reports and analyses of what went wrong are still coming in, but the wind clearly played a crucial factor in diverting the Ever Given from its path and into the eastern shore of the channel. I have seen reports of wind speeds ranging from 30 to 70 mph and suspect that the actual speed fell in the range of 30 to 50 mph. Bloomberg News reports that the ship was transiting the canal without a tug escort, despite the high winds and the fact that other, smaller container ships ahead of it did indeed have tug escorts.

    These are the kinds of winds that are commonly experienced during the winter in Haro Strait, where they have to execute a right-angle turn at Turn Point on Stuart Island. There a following wind of that speed would begin to hit the vessel broadside, creating tricky navigating conditions. Add that to the fact that containers would be piled ten or more stories high, creating a serious “sail effect,” and you have a recipe for disaster. There are shallow reefs in the Turn Point area onto which the container ship could easily be driven aground and begin leaking fuel oil into the Salish Sea.

    Perhaps we should require that such mega-max container ships have a tug escort, just as is now required of oil tanker in transiting the strait.

  2. The Seattle Times just published my essay today on this subject:

    The Zim Kingston fire could easily have turned into a full-fledged disaster. But luckily there were two tugs with fire-fighting equipment that just happened to be docked in Victoria Harbor at the time, and they finally managed to extinguish the blaze. Otherwise it would probably be on the sea floor right now, leaking more of the noxious or toxic substances it was carrying into our Salish Sea waters.

    I hope this serves as a big wake-up call to the somnolent Canadian authorities.

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